If I asked you what Fran Frey, Paul Small, Dick Hotcha Gardner and Canada Dry have in common, you probably wouldn’t know. If I asked you what Rochester, Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson and Jell-O have in common, you’d answer “Jack Benny.” As strange as it may seem, the answer to the first question would be “Jack Benny” as well.
It was 80 years ago today Jack began his radio career in earnest. The Associated Press’ radio columnist C.E. Butterfield highlighted the Benny debut and opined the show would be on for “a while.” “A while” turned out to be until 1955 and then it carried on even longer on television. But Jack’s debut was an entirely different Benny show. There was no Mary, no Maxwell, no age 39, no money in a vault, no bad violin playing. That was schtick developed over the years. Instead, Jack was an M.C. who shared billing with orchestra leader George Olsen and Ethel Shuttá, Olsen’s singer and (at the time) wife. Frey and Gardner were vocalists, Small provided incidental character voices, much like Mel Blanc and many others would do after the show moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1935. By then, the idea of a quasi-musical show had long been abandoned and the comedy and light satire which slowly developed became dominant.
Over the years, Jack segued from “comedian” to “living legend,” a title which makes reporters prone to enquire about the subject’s nostalgic past rather than the future. Mini life stories about Jack were not uncommon during the course of his radio and TV career. He practically invited a look back by fabricating occasional how-I-found-this-cast-member episodes. But reporters apparently reached the point where they had written almost all they could about Jack, so they asked him (or his buddies) to reminisce instead.
One such story was syndicated by the National Enterprise Association, and appeared in papers on February 22, 1960. Some of the things Jack talks about may be unknown to Benny fans. I’ve left in the columnist’s post-script on a non-Benny item because it features a project I’ve never heard about with truly bizarre casting.
Applause, Memories Balm to Benny
By ERSKINE JOHNSON
HOLLYWOOD — (NEA) — As George Burns keeps insisting, Jack Benny is a pushover for life’s little things, and it is fond little personal memories we have Jack talking about today.
The world’s most famous “39-year-old” has just celebrated his 66th birthday on the road from Waukegan to riches. But if you think Jack keeps working because he wants to become even richer, you’ve got the lad pegged wrong.
Money, fame, social security and old age paychecks he doesn’t need.
What keeps that youthful zest up at such a hectic, enthusiastic pace is applause — applause and friendly laughing faces out there in the audience. They’re better than vitamins for Jack.
Well, anyway, everyone knows how busy Jack keeps himself on CBS-TV, and in concert fiddling, and everyone knows all about all the fame he has had.
But as George Burns keeps insisting, Jack flips over the darndest little things.
“One day,” Burns tells it. “Jack phoned me and asked me to rush over to his house. I rushed over and he said come upstairs to his bedroom and there, in the center of the rug, he had a pair of newly shined shoes. He pointed to them and said to me:
“ ‘Look at those shoes, George. Did you ever see a shine that good? It’s fantastic, George. I just found this fellow down in Beverly Hills. Best shoe shine I’ve ever had. You just gotta take all your shoes to this fellow, George.’ ”
George Burns, as everyone knows, is a bit of a dramatist but people who know Jack Benny best know about the little things in life which keep him happier than new fame or another lousy million in the bank.
Looking back at 66 years, little personal memories overshadowed the big ones as Jack flipped the calendar.
A 50-foot putt on the 9th green at the Hillcrest Country Club which gave Jack his first nine hole golf score of 39 — “I shot my age that day.”
There was an old, 1908 newspaper clipping someone sent him, a story in a Waukegan paper about a 14-year-old Benny Kubelsky in a violin recital.
There was the first time he saw the name “Jack Benny” on a Chicago theater marquee—“I thought it was an awful name”; the disappointment of not being able to accept (because of a vaudeville booking) a costarring role with Fred and Adele Astaire in “The Bandwagon” on Broadway — “Frank Morgan got the part and I thought I had missed the opportunity of my life.”
There was a date Jack could remember: July 4, 1945.
The place was Nuernberg, Germany, and he stood on a platform and made two thousand GIs laugh until there were tears in their eyes. On the same platform, just a year before, Hitler had promised to wipe out the entire Jewish race.
Jack flipped the calendar way back to World War I to remember young Benny Kubelsky, a violin-playing sailor in the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Revue. The director of the show gave him one line of dialog but the line came out so funny that he was given another line and still another line and in that sailor suit “Jack Benny” was born.
Jack finally made the next to closing spot in vaudeville at the Palace. “On that day I thought I had gone as far as I could ever go.”
But it was really just the beginning because radio, movies and TV were still to come.
SHORT TAKES: Bing Crosby’s lads will revive the singing act, but not until next summer . . . Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin couldn’t get together on the time and the place. So, for the time being at least, “The Jimmy Durante Story” is on the shelf. They were to have played Clayton, Jackson and Durante.
Meanwhile, back in July 1932, columnist O.O. McIntyre buried vaudeville in its showcase tomb by waxing about the great acts in former times at the Palace, including star emcee Jack Benny. And C.E. Butterfield’s column on the 13th announcing Jack’s renewal for 13 weeks was overshadowed by something else—word of a concert to be televised on W2XAB-CBS. That was mass entertainment’s future, and Jack eventually starred there, too. In fact, old Benny reruns are still seen on TV today, proof that his comedy has stood the test of time, making him one of the greats of modern show business.